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"No one wants their kids exposed to something like that," Sullins says, adding that he couldn't blame her for wanting to shield their children from police involvement or worse. They have since resolved that matter. Most of Sullins' interactions with the law take place in quiet courtrooms or over the counter at a local police departments, where he hands over requisite payments for traffic violations and misdemeanors.
Appellate briefs are being filed this month, following Judge Robert McClellend's Nov. 26 summary judgment in favor of the television program and Crime Stoppers. The defamation case is set to continue via oral arguments this year. And the crux of Sullins' urge to move forward is whether the fair report privilege applies.
The fair report privilege is a shield couched in media law. The idea regards protection from liability if the published information relies on an official public document or statement made by a public official. That holds true even in cases of alleged defamation. The necessity of clarity falls to the media organization, which must clearly state the information's source and use the same accurately.
"The defense allows you to report on government activity without bearing the overwhelming burden of first proving the truth of everything said in government documents and proceedings," in a nutshell, according to the Citizen Media Law Project. Such privilege is observed in Ohio, which is where Sullins' legal representation at Cohen Rosenthal & Kramer comes in. (Attorney Peter Pattakos is an occasional contributor to Scene.)
According to Ohio Revised Code 2317.05, the fair report privilege "provides a privilege to accurate reports of ... the issuance of a warrant ... as well as fair an[d] impartial reports of the contents of these documents. A plaintiff can defeat this privilege by showing that the defendant (1) acted with actual malice, (2) failed to publish a reasonable written explanation or contradiction offered by the plaintiff, or (3) failed to publish, upon request of the plaintiff, the subsequent determination the lawsuit or case."
The burden of proving defamation falls to the accuser.
McClellend's ruling centered around an opinion that Sullins' "fugitive" status was, in several ways, essentially true at the time the episode aired.
Sullins had five outstanding warrants for his arrest issued at the time in March 2010. None of them had to do with his passing bad checks. Rather, they revolved around a series of situations in 2008 wherein Sullins failed to appear before the court or failed to pay a fine following traffic violations like having expired plates, driving without a seatbelt and driving "too slow." Hardly fodder to be labeled a dangerous fugitive on the lam. All warrants were canceled Nov. 16, 2010.
McClelland noted that the portrayal of Sullins as being wanted for the felonious crime of passing bad checks was "arguably libelous per se." But he also added that Sullins' case never painted the defendants as acting with reckless disregard or actual malice. In essence, according to the judge, Sullins was unable to point to Rech or anyone else involved with the matter as acting in any way meant to hurt his reputation or spread false information.
His case points out the thin ice of tacitly reporting government-issued information verbatim. Shield laws have built up common-law strength through decades of litigation - and plenty of it locally - but the result of information gone wrong remains palpable to anyone involved. Cuyahoga County, as a governmental entity, enjoys sovereign immunity from lawsuits stemming from tort, such as defamation.
Twenty-five of Cleveland's most wanted fugitives will not be shown on this weekend's episode of Crime Stoppers Case Files. Rech says they haven't featured the "Fugitive File" segment for a long time now.
"Unless someone's going to indemnify us, we can't do it," Rech says. The cost of the segment he ran March 27, 2010, has set him and the company back quite a bit.
"It very nearly put us out of business," he adds. He hasn't turned a profit since the project began and the run-around in the courts hasn't helped that matter. But he never got into the business for the money. The results of his show and the work of Crime Stoppers of Cuyahoga County are very real. The input of viewers and local crime-focused watchdogs has had a dramatic impact on area law enforcement - often for the better.
"The show is a proactive crime-solving tool. I think it's a responsible use of the airwaves," Rech says. "I think it's a constructive use of the airwaves."
Lavelle Sullins would probably add the caveat... "If done responsibly."
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